If a person runs from a crime scene after a crime is committed, and is later charged with being the perpetrator, the jury may consider this “flight” as evidence that the person is guilty. The Court will typically read the jury the following instruction:
Flight is a circumstance from which guilty knowledge and fear may be inferred. If you believe from the evidence in this case beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did flee or go into hiding, such flight or hiding may be considered in connection with all other evidence in the case. You may determine from all the facts, whether such flight or hiding was from a conscious sense of guilt or whether it was caused by other things and give it such weight as you think it is entitled to in determining the guilt or innocence of the defendant.
When the judge tells the jury it can consider this evidence in deciding whether the Defendant is guilty, the results can be devastating for the defense. The Supreme Court has, however, placed a very important restriction on the use of “flight” evidence: it can only be used when the Defendant’s flight from the scene is unexplained. If the Defendant has a plausible, alternative explanation for why he fled the scene, the evidence will not be admitted, and the instruction will not be read to the jury.
The best example of an alternative explanation for flight is where the Defendant was acting in self-defense. Consider the case of Banks v. State. 631 So.2d 748 (Miss. 1994). Banks was an aggravated assault case, where the Defendant was an invited guest at a woman’s house. According to Banks, while inside the house, the woman’s estranged husband came to the house and began arguing with the woman. Banks stated that the estranged husband eventually pulled out a pistol, at which time Banks stabbed him in self-defense. After being stabbed, the husband threatened to kill Banks. Banks claimed that he then took off running from the scene because he feared that the husband would kill him.
Over the objection of Banks’ attorney, the trial judge gave the flight instruction quoted above. Banks was found guilty. He appealed his conviction to the Mississippi Supreme Court. Because Banks’ flight from the scene was “explained,” the Court held that evidence of flight should not have been admitted. In reversing the conviction, the Court stated:
The State argues that Banks’ “reason for flight following the aggravated assault of Dennis Thompson was unexplained, and is probative of his theory of necessary self defense.” The State concedes that Banks was threatened by Patrick Thompson following the stabbing, but contends that the flight was in progress when the threat was made. The State takes the position that only the victim can provide a reason for the flight. This argument is neither logical nor based on existing case law. Banks’ flight could be based on more than one reason. The State loses sight of the fact that Banks has never denied committing the act of stabbing the victim. Where the defendant is arguing self-defense, a flight instruction should be automatically ruled out and found to be of no probative value.
Common sense dictates that fear of the alleged victim is a legitimate, alternative explanation for running from a crime scene. In such cases, flight evidence is not admissible. Whenever I have a case where my client fled the scene of the crime, I immediately explore whether there is a legitimate explanation why he fled. Fear of death or bodily harm by the alleged victim or others is the most common explanation, but there could be other reasons. Once I pinpoint an alternative explanation, I file a motion to exclude evidence of flight, and to prohibit the prosecutor from arguing to the jury that they should consider flight as evidence that my client is guilty.
If you are facing a similar situation, or have any criminal-related issues you wish to discuss, please contact me.